Whether you are a business owner or a manager, your leadership style has a trickle-down effect that impacts everything and everyone in your organization. How do you make it the best it can be?
For the third time in less than a month, Joe received notice that one of his employees was quitting. He felt frustrated that he would have to hire again, plus there were so many other HR issues to deal with. Later, he had to have a performance conversation with Sally, who was lagging in meeting her sales quotas. The day before, Joan and Frank had had a heated argument in the staff room, and people who heard it were visibly upset. And on the last financial statement he’d received from Jack, he’d found several significant errors by this usually diligent employee.
Joe couldn’t deny that the team dynamics at his company had taken a downward turn in the last year. People were leaving faster than he could hire them and the atmosphere around the office was caustic. Joe felt like he spent his days dealing with people issues instead of running a business. In spite of his best efforts, he was not making headway.
Unfortunately, Joe’s story is not unlike that of many small-business owners who find HR issues frustrating and time-consuming. Business owners, often adept in operations but untrained in people management, can feel a lack of confidence that leaves them guessing as to the best way to lead their teams. Time pressures and the need to expedite business requirements may lead to shortcuts or circumventing the process of relationship building, resulting in something akin to Joe’s experience.
The Leadership Flow
Leadership flows downward through an organization like a mountain stream. Whether it is good or bad, it streams through every department, work group and individual.
Some principles of great leadership never change. Integrity, consistency, fairness, compassion, vision — these will never be out of vogue. Others have changed significantly in response to ever-evolving technology and workforce demographics. Leadership style must adapt or it will lose relevance and people will be reluctant to follow. Younger workers expect different things than their predecessors did, and leaders must understand what it takes to attract and retain good talent. A common element that keeps younger workers engaged and loyal is a great culture — and leadership has a greater impact on culture than any other factor.
An organization with strong leadership has a corporate culture that feels natural and authentic. Open communication at the leadership level means that everyone on the team understands the vision and goals and has input into how these goals can be achieved. Employees feel a strong connection to the organization, have a substantial understanding of how their jobs fit into the big picture and feel that their contributions are valued. Employees are promoted or given growth opportunities according to how their talent matches the job and what they have contributed to the company. They understand that helping co-workers succeed is the best way to get ahead. Corporate values are visible and alive within the organization. People are engaged, collaborative and love coming to work.
When good leadership is absent, the corporate culture is apathetic at best and toxic at worst. Communication from leaders to employees is meaningless because what employees hear from the company does not align with their experience. This results in rumours, backstabbing, one-upmanship and a lack of trust. Employees have no idea how they fit into the big picture or how important they are in making it happen. Decisions for promotions are based on who can talk the biggest talk or who is currently “favoured” with the leadership team. Corporate values are invisible and employees are jaded. They learn to play dirty against co-workers to get ahead, have no loyalty to each other or the organization and bring frustration, negativity and fatalism to work every day.
Joe may not realize that his frustration with constant turnover is causing him to be negative and short-tempered with his staff. He’s clear on his values and communicates them regularly, but when he’s under the gun, he may not always “walk the talk.” Ignoring conflicts has led to flare-ups within the team and poor performance on many levels. Lack of attention to a struggling employee has resulted in potentially costly errors from someone he could usually count on. Joe knows he’s in over his head, but he can’t afford to hire someone to take on HR. It all feels like too much.
Top Four Leadership Skills
The good news for Joe or anyone in a leader role is that strong, positive leadership can turn a toxic, negative culture into a thriving one. Yes, it takes effort, skill, commitment, communication and persistence, but it can be done.
So what are the most important leadership skills you need to develop to make the biggest impact?
1) Authenticity — leading by example
There really is no substitute for authenticity. Consistently demonstrating your values and being a role model is powerful. I once worked for a VP who was very verbal about her values and those of the company. But sadly, in this leader’s interactions with employees, the values were far from evident. One of the values was “mistakes are opportunities for learning and growth,” yet when someone made a mistake, the leader would become angry. This left employees disillusioned, unmotivated and fearful of trying new things.
In contrast, good leadership focuses on building honest relationships with employees, valuing their input and creating an ethical foundation to guide their actions. Authentic leaders are positive, truthful and open. They don’t hesitate to jump in and work side by side with their team to get the job done and to demonstrate a positive, supportive attitude. They don’t cover up mistakes or blame others. They embody an organization’s values, demonstrate genuine care for employees and walk with integrity in every aspect of their business.
If Joe were honest with his team about some of the areas where they were struggling to meet expectations — including where he had fallen short — he might be surprised to find his team on board with helping to make improvements. Dealing with these issues head-on instead of ignoring them would help him stay on top of his team’s performance and let them know he can be trusted to create a safe, positive workplace.
2) Communication — inspiring passion
Honest, vibrant, positive and clear communication can energize and engage a team like nothing else. If you communicate your enthusiasm and belief in your vision, your team will follow with the same energy, plus they’ll work toward helping you fulfill your goals with stronger buy-in, co-operation and teamwork.
One way to encourage this connection is to help your employees connect with the why of what you are doing. This inspires a team to contribute with enthusiasm because they feel they are important — even necessary — to fulfilling that purpose. Let them know about any changes that will affect them, ask for their input, and engage them in solutions.
3) People building — empowering the team
A great culture requires a great team — and a great team requires a great leader. According to a recent McKinsey & Company study of 189,000 people in 81 diverse organizations around the world, being supportive was number one of the four behaviours that accounted for leadership effectiveness.
Good leaders capitalize on employee strengths and help employees contribute to the organization where they are at their best. They take time to notice and regularly acknowledge good work. Their people know they are valued because they receive regular, meaningful feedback about how they are doing and where they can grow. In a strong culture, there’s room for mistakes. In fact, an environment where employees are not afraid to make mistakes is paramount to a culture of creativity, innovation and growth. When people feel supported, valued and confident, they emulate those things within their teams, reciprocating the support they feel from their leaders.
4) Reaching out — knowing when you need help
While growing these leadership skills will help you gain credibility with your team and stabilize some of the negative behaviours creating problems in your organization, there may come a time when you recognize what you are facing is beyond your expertise. Bringing in some HR help from time to time could take off the pressure you feel when you’re out of your depth. In fact, doing so could actually save you time and money and reduce your stress.
Joe could hire an HR consultant to assist him with improving his hiring processes, as well as in gaining an understanding as to why his turnover is so high. The money he spends for the knowledge and tools in this area will more than compensate for the time and money he spends by not doing it well.
Leading the Way
In terms of leadership, if you did nothing else over the next year but grow the skills I mentioned above, you would see a dramatic and positive change in your team. Remember that metaphor with leadership as a mountain stream? As your authenticity, communication and commitment to supporting your team flow through the levels of your organization, you will find yourself influencing and positively impacting their lives.